Two by David Lean
Sooner or later, we all have to do it. I've finally seen "The Bridge on the River Kwai" in its entirety, from Netflix. It's been on TV often enough, but somehow I just couldn't work up the enthusiasm on an average evening to watch nearly three hours of Alec Guinness sweating and striving to build the blasted bridge while William Holden and Jack Hawkins sweated and strove through the jungle to, well, blast the bridge.
I found I liked the movie better than I expected, though I'm not sure it entirely lives up to its reputation. It certainly contains many wonderful things, including the heart-stopping Sri Lankan locations captured magnificently by cinematographer Jack Hildyard; the legendary performances of Guinness, Holden, Hawkins, and Sessue Hayakawa; and the film's final 15 or 20 minutes, which point up as powerfully as any movie in history the futility of war and the way it warps men's minds. But, against those virtues, you have to set a whole lot of building, building, building and slogging, slogging, slogging. "The Bridge on the River Kwai" undeniably is a fine movie, but--as one critic said of the medieval epic "Piers Plowman"--no one ever wished it longer.
"The Bridge on the River Kwai" marked the beginning of Lean's career as an epic director, which reached its apex with "Lawrence of Arabia" and also included "Doctor Zhivago," "Ryan's Daughter" and "A Passage to India." This has stirred a constant debate among movie buffs--similar to the constant debate among musical buffs as to whether Rodgers was greater with Hart or Hammerstein--as to whether the great David Lean, the important David Lean, began or ended with "The Bridge on the River Kwai." From "River Kwai" on, Lean undeniably gave us some tremendous movie moments, but also some tremendous longueurs. Sorry to you "Zhivago" fans out there, but for me the early, intimate Lean films--the Lean of "Brief Encounter," "Oliver Twist" and "Great Expectations"--are the ones I never tire of seeing. This was brought home to me particularly by a recent viewing, after many years, of "Hobson's Choice," the comedy Lean directed only three years before "River Kwai." Based on the 1915 play by Harold Brighouse, "Hobson's Choice" has some tartly witty things to say about the British class system, as a smart, tough-minded young woman rebels against her drunken, tyrannical bootmaker father by dragging the father's most talented workman to the altar and setting him up in business for himself. The social satire is of necessity more meaningful to British than American audiences, but what all audiences will appreciate are the superb comic performances, starting with Charles Laughton, an absolute scream as the tosspot dad, and John Mills, who grows from a scared little rabbit of a man to a lion ready to roar. "Hobson's Choice" represents probably the best role ever given to the excellent character actress Brenda de Banzie (she also was memorable in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and "The Entertainer"). And who is the pretty, baby-faced blonde playing de Banzie's youngest sister? Why, it's none other than Prunella Scales, twenty years before she would write her own page in British comedy history as Sybil in "Fawlty Towers."
"Hobson's Choice" is shot in sharp black-and-white, restricted largely to a few indoor sets including Laughton's shop and the pub where he hangs out. Certainly it presents nothing like the glorious panoramas that "River Kwai" provides us. Yet I know which movie I could sit down and watch right now, and every month hereafter.